Smart Weapons, Complex Carriers⁠ – And Poorly-Trained Soldiers And Sailors

Two recent articles in consecutive days ended up revealing much deeper issues of what happens when advanced military technology meets insufficient basic skills of those using it. The first piece of news touted a new smart gun. The SMASH Fire Control System promises to “combine simple-to-install hardware with our own advanced image-processing software to cost effectively turn basic small arms into 21st century smart weapons.”

SMASH: Revolutionary Upgrade?

That sounds like an amazing and almost revolutionary upgrade. The system attaches to a weapon and allows you to lock onto the target and only fire when its guaranteed to hit. The Israelis have done the most advanced testing and they plan on using it to better track and target drones. This would make their riflemen a supplement to their laser and missile-based defenses.  This seems like a smart use of smart technology to integrate riflemen into a low-cost missile defense against low tech items.

Over-Promising And Under-Delivering

The problem with these smart technologies was revealed a day later in a discussion about the Ford Class carrier. (My only surprise was that it wasn’t on the same day.)  Much like the F35, the Ford Class carrier was designed to be a next level ship that implemented new technologies to dominant its competition for the next 40 years. So far, however, it has instead become a floating monument to over-promising and under delivering.

The money quote comes from Cmdr. Mehdi Akacem who heads up the carrier: “The biggest challenge is managing the complexity,” Akacem said. I think there is more technical complexity packed into this ship than the Apollo program…There are so many new systems. … The challenge is sustaining that focus on one new thing after another. I don’t think there are any five people who understand all the complexity on this ship, all these technical challenges happening in parallel.”

Military Tech Upgrades Are Needed But They Need To Be Competently Managed

Implementing new technology is great, and in fact is needed in the face of new and complex weapon systems being fielded by potential adversaries like Russia and China. I have consistently praised military forces for fielding new laser technology and upgrading older systems like radar on Aegis ships. But, as seen in the Ford case and throughout military history, high-tech wonder weapons can sometimes be an obstacle instead of an advantage.

Case Study: The World Wars

Historian Richard Overy pointed out that the allies won World War II using old technology while Germany lost using new ones. Tanks, airplanes, trenches, and machine guns were all used during World War I. The allies simply had slightly more advanced versions of weapons they already fought with, but they mass produced them and had solid battle doctrine and strategy which they used to win the war. The Germans invented innovative ballistic missiles, jets, rockets and helicopters. But they were too expensive to produce in mass numbers, and the tactics and doctrine to properly implement them were not sufficiently developed. Even the Germans’ mainline battle tanks like the King Panther had significant development issues that limited their effectiveness during the war. So, the Germans lost the war with advanced technology and the allies won the war with better implemented older technology. This irony was explored in Arthur C. Clarkes short story “Superiority.”

Advanced Weapons Don’t Mean Advanced Combat

The new smart weapon touted by the army very much reminds me of the cautionary tale in fictional World War Z. This book is already on my mind and seems prophetic because it describes the spread of the zombie menace the same way the real Corona virus has spread.  In World War Z American infantry with smart weapons networked with advanced generation fighters awaiting the zombie horde coming from New York City. But their smart technology didn’t kill as many zombies as they thought it would. The infantry rifleman did not have enough ammunition distributed and lacked the proper formation. They relied too much on technology instead of the basic skill of the rifleman.

After years of retreat and reform they reengaged the zombies. This time, the US had mothballed its expensive technology that was less effective in fighting low tech zombies. Instead, they armed their soldiers with a basic rifle that would never jam, put them in a simple line or square and then distributed ammunition and water. The firing line that often turned into a square formation recalled the Greek Phalanx, Roman Legion, and British firing line. Using sound tactics, good training, and a basic but effective rifle they defeated the enemy (spoiler alert).

Can SMASH Work Well?

The SMASH technology promises simple, easy to install hardware, advanced images, and low cost. But the history of the US military suggests it will not be any of those things. Outside of the Israelis that are using it to enhance basic riflemen skills and better kill low tech drones, SMASH simply seems to be a technological replacement for important skills like marksmanship training and maintaining small unit discipline. With a navy that increasingly doesn’t show proper seamanship in steering their ships, and generals that have difficulty with basic rifle techniques SMASH is unlikely to be the silver bullet that solves the military’s challenges. The training and hence the power influence of the infantry⁠—sea and air⁠—is in danger of being neglected in favor of the next new and big technology.